12 Jul Interview with H.E. Kelvin Charles, Chief Secretary Tobago House of Assembly, Trinidad and Tobago
Ahead of this meeting, we spoke to an economist on the role of Tobago within the country and Tobago’s ambitions to be more autonomous. You are a man with a background in education and education is essentially about having a vision for the future. The Tobago House of Assembly has a series of priorities, which it aims to achieve under your guidance. Could you walk us through your medium- and long-term strategies and priorities?
Tobago is an island in its own right. It has been making its own economic arrangements. Tobago is seeking to determine, to a large extent, its own destiny. It is developing its capacity and capabilities, to support its intent. From an economic standpoint, our vision for the future is one that emphasizes agriculture, tourism, light manufacturing and some specialized services.
That vision is supported – and undergirded – by four key pillars. Those four pillars are 1) A robust education system; 2) a dynamic health sector; 3) a reformed public service; and 4) an industrious and hospitable people. Passion and education will drive the island forward, alongside an alert and agile public sector. We are streamlining bureaucracy and, more importantly, working on cultivating urgency, productivity and efficiency. Everyone must take responsibility to move this island forward. We are, continuously, articulating the vision for future growth to our inhabitants. The various stakeholders must understand this and we are in constant dialogue with them about it, we need them to buy into it and stay true to the roadmap therefore.
You are catering towards the enablers of the economy to move the island forward. In this sense, how can foreign players play a role herein, to invest in the island and exchange know-how?
Tobago is open for business. We are in conversation with a number of international players, particularly also within tourism. As recently as two weeks ago, we were speaking to an investor interested in refurbishing hotels. The prospects are good – but I like to be cautious. There is another investor, a Tobagonian part of the American diaspora, interested in investing in Tobago. We purchased a small lodge, Manta Lodge, and he is prepared to give us a proposal.
In this respect, we believe that the Sandals chain will also make a difference, alongside other international brand hotels. Currently, we don’t have 5-star hotel facilities in Tobago.
There is also ample opportunities within the Maritime Sector, with tenders out by NIDCO for the development of marina’s. We are seeing a greater drive, within the governmental ambit of diversification, to invest in Tobago.
We have heard a lot of interest from other interviewees, who truly see the potential in Tobago. A particular opportunity is within infrastructure development, specifically the development of the airport. Could you share with us more hereon?
Once you have a modern airport facility, the island, as a whole, becomes more attractive to investors – particularly within tourism. This terminal will be completed by 2020 and we will be able to cater to world-class airlines. At this point in time, we do not attract the level of international flights that we would like to. Once you have a world-class airport coupled with international branded hotels – the tourism sector will truly take off.
The Secretary of Tourism recently returned from the USA, where she had extensive conversations with cruise-ship operators and airlines. The response was very positive, and they saw the potential of Tobago – but, when your airport and new hotels are up and running…we’ll talk! Because, at the end of the day, when they come, they want to see that they are getting a return on their investment.
This is all underway now and the time to act is now. Alongside this, we are upgrading infrastructure, specifically with modern waste-water disposal facilities being set up. This would be very positive for any hotel coming here. Alongside this, we are looking at the option of a desalination plant. With Sandals, we are looking at an 800+ room hotel. By virtue of that, the demand for water and infrastructure will dramatically increase.
The foundations are being laid, with a well-calculated optimism for the future.
Another point of interest, as mentioned, is within agriculture. Could you please elaborate on your plans within this dynamic sector?
Within a historic perspective, there was a time when Tobago was the breadbasket of the country. Unfortunately, there was a hurricane in 1963, which devastated the agriculture sector. It never really recovered to its prior state, despite valiant attempts to do so. In hindsight, more could have been done to incentivize and create a sense of ownership over production. In addition, hereto, the country suffered through the Dutch Disease. Ultimately, as revenues grew from oil which led to having more money to purchase from abroad, the agricultural sector took a knock. Agricultural production has stagnated, but we are working on reviving it. We want to produce for ourselves and ultimately export.
We are busy with Agricultural Education, through our Tobago Farm School. We have graduated roughly 50 persons. Of these, we provide them with land so that they can get into farming. There will be a licensing arrangement for them to farm government land. If, overtime, we see true production, it will move from licensing to be a lease agreement. The THA is in conversation with the University of Trinidad & Tobago and they will be introducing agri-education to the island, particularly within food-technology. We want our people to move, seamlessly, from production to processing. We’ve also been having intense conversations with the Agricultural Development Bank, who have interesting programs for young people. We want to mobilize our farmers so that they will be aware of what options they have available for financing. It is incredibly true that these new hotel-chains will need a greater supply of food – can you imagine how many eggs Sandals would need every day! We want our farmers to be responsible for that supply. We are, alongside this, looking at the potential of a feed-mill, for the production of eggs, to facilitate the industry. We are putting in place the infrastructure and working on the different pieces of the puzzle so that, when you need everything to be operational, you have that integrated tapestry guiding your prosperity. In the final analysis, we are working towards prosperity of our people and the island’s autonomy.
Trinidad & Tobago finds itself in a window-period wherein it must act. It must build its own capacity, but foreign players can be crucial in its development. Our reports are read globally and our readership includes very influential decision-makers. Could you offer us your thoughts on the true value of Tobago, its potential and the vision for the future?
When you speak of your readership, one begins to understand the true need for the development of the infrastructure of the island and the opportunity that this presents. Many travelers would prefer if they can fly straight from their home destination to Tobago. That is one of the challenges that we have in Tobago. The new terminal will have a drastic impact hereon.
Prime Minister Dr. Rowley’s recent trip to China where he met with President Xi Jinping, would open new doors to the East for the country. In attendance, was the Chairman of Caribbean Airlines. For someone, flying from China, it would make a tremendous difference to fly directly to Tobago if the opportunity were there. This would be a tremendous boost and could lure many more tourists to the island.
For my administration, the emphasis of tourism has always been that we are absolutely unique within the Caribbean. We have such a rich and unique culture. Tobago exchanges hands in excess of 30 hands. Therefore, the cultural influences is dynamic and globally unique. This should be infused in our Tourism product. My administration created a dedicated division for tourism, culture and transportation. The idea here is that there is a nexus – a seamlessness – between culture and tourism, to easily develop our unique product.
We want a Tobago that is progressive, finding itself at a point in its development where there is a balance between sustainability and excitement. We want an island that offers an environment and a people that are friendly, hospitable, productive, loyal, patriotic, forward-thinking and taking ownership of their own destiny. Our island can be a beacon of hope, which offers tangible support to the economy. It must hold its own in the global space.
Tobago needs influential and industrious leadership. An example, bearing many similarities to your own, hereof, was President Pepe Mujica of Uruguay. He established his country as a beacon and a role-model for Latin America. His values and commitment to his country is unique.
I am aware of President Pepe Mujica, his interesting approach and the remarkable impact he had on his own country. Within this, I do realize and appreciate Tobago as being remarkably unique in several ways. I want the people of Tobago to recognize the role that they have to play within a global setting. We can truly offer something unique to the Caribbean and to the world.
In this sense, Tobago is competing, in tourism, with other tourism products throughout the Caribbean. You mentioned the uniqueness and authenticity of the island and it shouldn’t just be a ‘tourist factory’. This production focusses on the culture, the allure, the food, the history, the culture of the destination.
Any visitor can easily discern the difference and uniqueness of our culture. There is such a distinct serenity on this island. Anyone who steps off a plane or off the ferry, will be struck by our serenity and idyllic character. We will maintain our strong historic foundations without changing the landscape, but will move the island forward while staying true to our culture and character.